JACK WATERFORD. Time to pull the curtain on memorial industry (Canberra Times 3.11.2018)

A fairly safe rule of public life is that the more flag lapels one wears, and the more one speaks of love of country or national greatness, the less likely the person has served in the nation’s armed forces and put himself in harm’s way, least of all in a time of national need.

Two bellicose recent United States presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, come to mind. In Australia, it’s hard to go past John Howard, Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Brendan Nelson, a former defence minister who has perpetually thrust himself to the forefront during the World War I remembrance extravaganza – due, we hope, to conclude over the next few weeks.  

A digitally imagined view of what the Australian War Memorial will look like after the upgrade announced on Thursday. Vision supplied by the AWM. No sound

But my hope may be in vain. No sooner shall we note the silence of the guns on November 11 than the Australian War Memorial will set out to establish another entirely inappropriate but politically potent memorial to national political follies. It will be for soldiers who have died in recent wars, such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, against Aborigines in the Northern Territory and against refugees in leaky boats at sea. The government has pledged about $500 million (no doubt with extra private sector help from the merchants of death) to some fresh galleries, as well as a faintly ludicrous memorial to all of the war memorials already erected around Australia over the past 100 years or so.

It’s only fair to our recently serving men and women, I suppose. One does not slice, dice and weigh different types and times of sacrifice in the service of one’s country, even if or when it was more or less in vain, so far as the nation’s defence interests were concerned.

But not all things are equal. Our War Memorial records the names of about 102,000 men and women who died in action serving their their country. More than 60,000 of these died in World War I, from a population of about 4 million – almost all civilians who volunteered to fight for the duration of the war when our national leaders declared civilisation to be in peril from German militarism. About three times that number returned from Europe sick and wounded, including by gas burns to the lungs and traumatic stress, for shortened and more miserable lives. It was a national catastrophe, as traumatic for the population left behind, as one might imagine from contemplating that equivalent losses today, from our 25 million population, would be about 400,000 dead and 800,000 as invalids, and a total of about 2.5 million Australians sent to fight at Gallipoli, Palestine, France and Belgium. The memorials in every town recorded the fact that there was scarcely a local family untouched.

And only about 20 years later, people lined up again. By then, Australia had a population of about 7 million, in part because of interwar immigration. Before the war was over, more than 1 million Australians were wearing a military uniform, and several million more had been conscripted into manpower programs providing food, military supplies and services for the war effort. Nearly 40,000 died, in Africa, Syria, Greece, Malaysia, Thailand and New Guinea, as well as in the air war against Germany. They were men and women off the farm or off the street, in many cases already handicapped by years of the Great Depression, but the overwhelming proportion were volunteers, who came when they were called. It was not, generally, so gruesome a war in terms of loss of life, but a modern-day equivalent would be about 3.5 million men and women in uniform, and about 140,000 dead.

About 17,000 Australian soldiers – professionals more or less – fought in Korea in the early 1950s; about 340 were killed. More than 60,000 soldiers, mostly professional soldiers but also 15,000 conscripts, fought in Vietnam, of whom about 500 were killed. Vietnam was a politically divisive issue in Australia but it failed to involve and affect Australians in anything like the proportions of the two great wars. (I was a draft dodger at the time.)

Most casualties over the past 30 years were in Afghanistan. About 26,000 Australians fought from 2001 to 2014; we lost 41 soldiers, sailors and air force personnel. All were professional soldiers.

While we honour all Australians who served their country, and we certainly make no distinction of the dead, it should be clear that there are significant differences between the wars. Of those named at the War Memorial, 99 per cent were killed before 1950. In the past 70 years, fewer than 1000 have died in action. The World Wars involved civilians responding to the call, by the hundreds of thousands; the latter involved a highly trained and increasingly professional military elite – men and women whose vocational choices had contemplated fighting for their country. None of the struggles in which they became engaged involved the whole resources of the nation, and a significant proportion of its population and treasure.

More is involved than a mere difference in scale. In World War I, Australians fought in divisional strength, sometimes at army corp (in Australia’s case, of five divisions) strength. While they played only a relatively minor (and, in any event, both strategically and tactically unsuccessful) role at Gallipoli, Australian troops made a significant contribution to Allied victory in the Middle East and on the Western Front.

Likewise, in World War II, Australian divisions played significant roles in North Africa and Syria, and, if unsuccessful other than in obtaining delay, in Greece, as well as in repelling the Japanese in New Guinea. Their efforts, again at divisional level, were less successful in Malaya, Indonesia, Bougainville and Borneo, and, generally, they were fighting alongside allies, but their efforts were rarely submerged inside a general Allied push.

Australians have been involved in sharp, and lethal, firefights in the 70 years since. But they have never fought since at even brigade level, and most engagements have been at less than company level. Brave and tactically successful as our soldiers may have been, nothing they have achieved on a battlefield in the past 70 years has made a difference to the immediate or ultimate outcome of any conflict. No enemy history will mention a single battle.

Our air force and navy have been involved in or off Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, but never against military equipment capable of meeting them on equal terms.

We owe those involved, and the families of those who died, the truth about the essential pointlessness of our recent military campaigns.

Australia’s involvement in conflict over the past 70 years has mostly been as an ally of the US, and with a focus of being seen to be its ally and friend, rather than for any specifically Australian interest in the theatre itself. We owe those involved, and the families of those who died, the truth about its essential pointlessness. It was not worth the treasure, the deaths or the outcomes. Many Australian military leaders are frank in criticising the political decisions to get involved, the cases made in efforts to secure public support, and the want of good intelligence and clear objectives behind the missions.

Nelson was defence minister when critical decisions were made. He no doubt has an obvious interest in seeing our involvement as a triumph of Australian endeavour, rather than an occasion for searching and critical inquiry. His new circus will delay the latter.

He has certainly been enthusiastic in promoting the idea that our modern conflicts deserve the attention, and honour, of our previous ones. But will they be proportional to the degree of national sacrifice or impact on the national ethos? There were many single days during both World Wars when more Australians died than have died in combat collectively since 1970.

Nelson has proven a showman at the War Memorial. He has brought some innovations, not least the nightly Last Post that has proven popular with tourists. He has, perhaps, been helpful in showing that the carnage of the war spread far and wide.

But, like the accompanying spit and polish, provided for no military purpose whatever at vast public expense, it sometimes seems to be part of a project to turn the memorial into a Shinto temple, consecrated to some notion of flag, and ceremonial glorification of sacrifice at complete odds with what the memorial ought to be about.

All the more so when the frontman is a still active politician, who has manifested a genius for turning every story about the memorial and the World War I celebrations into a story about himself. He has assumed a role – particularly outrageous for one who did not serve – that seems to be a spokesman for soldiers, for soldiers being criticised, or for the very notion of military service. It is invariably tendentious. Like all recent Liberal leaders, he has a cack ear for the public mood. He has no right to appropriate the sacrifices of civilians to his own ends, or to pretend to channel the thoughts of men and women in the services.

Australians should never forget World War I. Or World War II. Each had profound effects on the nation – the first war practically flattened and bankrupted us. It destroyed for generations the optimism and confidence of a nation that had entered the century with perhaps the highest standard of living on earth. Australians ended the war broke and almost broken – perhaps not sorry that we went but certainly, except for a certain officer class, in no mood to think that battle had baptised or ennobled us.

This is not to suggest that the War Memorial should become a mere temple to the futility of war – or the cupidity of politicians. We show our respect for those who suffered, and we honour and remember them, if, any longer, we can. We should renew our cynicism about leaders who seek to politicise national security, or wrap themselves in the flag. We resolve to remember our history so we do not forget it.

After the forlorn memorials of World War I, survivors of World War II thought it enough to add another plaque for the extra dead of the next war. If there was to be a second memorial, many resolved, it should be in the form of some practical civic project, which served the community’s need. In the town I was born (in my family, four boys and a girl served overseas), this took the form of an ambulance station and a public swimming pool – if one off limits to Aborigines, even those who were returning soldiers, thanks to the local RSL’s insistence. It was to be 15 years after the war when the local community concluded that the freedoms people had fought for, and some had died for, included the right of Aboriginal Australians to live in the town, or to walk around it after dark.

Perhaps Nelson has an appropriate anecdote, told to him only yesterday, that explains and rationalises this, proving that we can honour the Aussie spirit only by turning the museum into a mausoleum. For me, I would rather honour service and suffering with some practical help and with some acknowledgement that many bear continuing psychic and physical scars from doing their duty – even when the duty has been so secret, or so shameful, that it must remain an on-water matter. Alternatively, $500 million to help with the continuing suffering of boat people fleeing from the conflicts in which we engaged might be an even more fitting monument.

Meanwhile, the marking of the end, 100 years ago, of World War I ought to be a sign that we should tone down the liturgy, the bullshit, and the politicisation of personal, community and national trauma – at least until we are again in some cataclysmic conflict.

We must never forget. But after 100 years, it’s not a matter for emotion but calm study and contemplation. That task might benefit from excusing the RSL, the professional military classes and politicians with mixed motives their tight control over the message.

Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times

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6 Responses to JACK WATERFORD. Time to pull the curtain on memorial industry (Canberra Times 3.11.2018)

  1. Kien Choong says:

    Hi, thank you for drawing attention to how we ought to commemorate recent military deployments.

    Question on this sentence: “It will be for soldiers who have died in recent wars, such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, against Aborigines in the Northern Territory and against refugees in leaky boats at sea. ”

    Did we really have a war against Aborigines recently? Did soldiers in fact die in this war?

    Arguably, the deployment to East Timor did make a difference to that young nation. Is that deployment worthy of commemoration?

    Personally, I like to think that going forward, the military’s most important role will be to act as peace keepers for UN sanctioned operations. We ought to commemorate such deployments, but probably in a different way from how we commemorate the soldiers of World War 1 and World War 2. They are each significant, but in different ways.

    Maybe instead of “Lest we forget”, we might proclaim, “Blessed are the peacemakers”. Just a suggestion!

  2. Jim KABLE says:

    Bravo Jack (separately contacted) and bravo John RICHARDSON – I endorse fully your suggestions – especially as regards the wicked politicians – any politicians indeed!

    • Rosemary O'Grady says:

      The same thought has often troubled me – especially as there are still numbers ‘known to God’ only, still unretrieved, and, also, many are unmemorialized.
      An uncle of mine, a young pilot, died in 1941. He is buried in the War Graves cemetery at Adelaide River, but his name does not appear in the mausoleum at Canberra because, I was told,there, he did not die in action. As a matter of Fact: He died on Embarkation duty, thousands of miles from Melbourne whence he had ‘Embarked’, a good enough leader of his men (RAAF) to inspire some lyrically-touching condolence letters. An experienced flier in civilian life, he died because the aircraft his co-pilot and he were flying, preparing for ‘action’ overseas, failed to come out of a practice manoevre and went into the sea near Dripstone. That is: poor design. His death created consequences still-felt by his family. They say it takes 3 generations… I say, with Emanuel Macron, patriotism and nationalism – an obscene propaganda.

  3. John O'Callaghan says:

    Wonderful piece of writing and i believe the little Dictator Horatio Nelson should be relieved of his duties forth with, he presides and rules over his little “Fifedom” like a power crazed caricature of Charlie Chaplin playing the part to a tee!

  4. Lesley Finn says:

    a very comprehensive and well written and insightful article.

  5. John Richardson says:

    In response to Jack Waterford’s brave & impassioned plea for Australia to abandon its cult of remembrance extravaganzas, there might be a couple of minor changes that could transform the long-standing tradition from what some see as a grotesque endorsement of nationalism & war to a genuine expression of national gratitude for the sacrifices made by so many to preserve the freedoms that we all enjoy today.
    Why not remove politicians from any pedestal in planning, directing, officiating or participating in remembrance activities, other than on those rare occasions where they can take their rightful place as returned servicemen or women?
    And just as we rightly seek to honour & remember our heroes through fabulous monuments & tributes, let’s also ensure that our memories are enriched by prominent displays acknowledging the wicked politicians & officials who betrayed them & us by sending them off to conflicts on the back of deliberate lies & deceit.

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